144 / 365 – Still

SARAH STRASBERG

I’m not used to sleeping with anyone. It’s been a long time. People think Erik and I just split up a year ago, two years ago, but there were years on the couch before that. The bed was my private refuge, the room at the end of the hall the place I could come to when the rest of the house wasn’t safe, with his unpredictable rages or his hard, angry silences. Sometimes Leah came and curled up with me. I didn’t want her to sleep in there, really. I wanted her company for awhile, to show Erik that she took my side. I didn’t want to be the lonely one, locked back in my room while they talked or laugh in the front room, in front of the TV. He always tried to pretend that he wasn’t banished to the couch, even though he’d been sleeping on it for years. He’d try to pretend he was just sitting out there, watching a little TV before he came in to bed. And she’d stay out with him, watching whatever he watched, laughing with him. They both knew I wasn’t going to come out and confront her, send her to bed. She knew I didn’t want to talk to him. She always seemed to know how she could make this situation work to her advantage.

I’d sit in the bedroom, trying to read, listening to them. Sometimes they only talked during commercials, interminable stretches of time when I couldn’t concentrate on whatever I was trying to do. Finally he would coax her to bed just as she was getting ready to fall asleep. And then I couldn’t sleep. I’d be wired from sitting there, listening hard, even though I was trying not to listen at all. In the morning I was always exhausted.

So if she asked to come in and lie with me, I let her, because it was better than that. Even if she fell asleep and I had to share the bed all night. I might lie there awake, too aware of her soft breath in the pillow next to me. But it was restful. She came from me. It’s familiar.

He falls asleep easily. Long and languid across the bed, his legs jutting out into bare space at the bottom of the bed. It’s a futon, a small one, the kind you buy for a small urban apartment. And that you keep in a North Dakota house, where it’s clearly too small, because you can’t afford another one. And because you never thought a basketball player would climb into it with you.

I run my fingers along his back, the smooth geography. Unfamiliar geography. The back flexed and curved downward, to where the curves meet at the small of his back. The shape of his back so perfect, as if it were chiseled, but chiseled from soft things. I touch his back while he lies quietly in shallow sleep. I am not sure this is mine, that I deserve this. Already my body arches toward his, he feels so familiar. But I hesitate. I thought this part of my life was over. I was no longer a loving, sexual thing. And it would have been, if he hadn’t first touched me, put his arms around me, pulled me close. I’d never have crossed that voice. I don’t know still if I ever should have.

143 / 365 – Forge

FRED VANEK

The prairie is green now. I look out my window and the green seems to burst out of the earth. For a month or two, while the ground is thawing and it’s first turned, you can smell the soil, getting ready. And then suddenly it’s green. The prairie seems to ache with it.

In all the places I lived before I was here, and during the war when we were in Russia, I never saw it get so green as it does here in this empty country. I was young, maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe this is for an old man to notice. Maybe it’s the long winters. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing much else to see in this country.

When I first came here, this is the time of the year when I did a lot of work in my forge, fixing broken shares and coulters and moldboards on plows, or the discs from harrows. Now people just go to the dealer, get a new part, throw the old ones out behind the shed. But back then, people tried to make them work as long as they could. I didn’t really know what I was doing. In Bohemia I had watched a blacksmith stamp out metal fittings from rods of metal, and I thought I could do that myself. I thought all you had to do was heat the metal up red and pound on it. I finished off a few harrow discs that way, the first time or two I tried. People brought them in, hoping to get them smoothed and sharpened so they might get a few more acres out of them, or another season, and I’d heat them wrong or hammer on them when they were brittle and break off big pieces. After awhile I got the hang of it. I was the last one left doing it. People brought parts up from miles away. I liked it, working with that hot fire, you could feel warm up the joints in your fingers. It would singe your eyebrows. I’d come home from work and Lizabeth would tell me I looked like I’d set myself on fire.

That work died out, though. Nowadays the machines are so big and expensive, nobody thinks about the cost of the parts of the plow or the harrow. You just get a new one. But once, when the prairie got green like this, I would look forward to that work. It was part of the season.

142 / 365 – Dirt is Over

KATHY ENGELS

So the garden is done. We took the last of the flats of seedlings out this morning, some varieties of pepper plants from Yugoslavia or Bulgaria or somewhere that he wasn’t sure about. And not sure about them even after checking in books, any number of the old guides to vegetable farming and poultry and livestock that spill over the shelves he’s built over his decks. And he had also a few last herbs that he knew don’t like cool air, like bay.

After we had finished, Mike came in and took down the stacks of sawhorses and two-by-fours and planks that have cluttered the house for the last two months, propping up seedlings inside on the sunny side of the house, leaned against the windowsills and tucked into the warm corners. This time of year the seedlings pretty much crowd out the family room — at night the kids were tucked all close into the TV to watch anything, even though we don’t get much reception up here. And the dining room — things stack up on the table while we’re waiting for the frosts to clear. We can’t have anybody over for supper, although Mike doesn’t mind. He says, “Fall is when it’s fun to have visitors. Who wants to come over on a Saturday night and eat the last of the tomatoes we canned in the fall?

And all the clutter isn’t half of it. There’s the dirt that it’s everything. In March and April the house starts to really smell up like dirty, with all the fresh potting soil getting spooned into plastic containers for seeds.I’ve learned to not complain about the composty soil that gets in the carpet there. That’s not a battle I want to fight any more, or at least want to win. Being married to Mike I’ve had to make peace with dirt. Dirt makes the man come to life. When it comes to March and he’s got a yard of dirt and he’s mixing in our compost, he’s an excited as I ever seen him. Seed time is Christmas for Mike, I think. So I’ve learned to ignore how it takes over. How we don’t ever have people over to the house once we start planting seeds indoors at the end of March. We don’t notice that smell of thick rich dirt, dirt full of compost, while we’re eating a hotdish or burgers from the stove or a big breakfast on Sunday morning. After awhile you realize they come together. That sweet and sour smell of the dirt is where all the good food comes from. Or so Mike says. And I’ve decided I’ll go along with that way of thinking.

The peppers we planted today were something new out of the seed catalog. Mike’s getting ambitious now, now that the cafe is taking so much of what we produce. They’ve saved us, really. Once Mike thought we were going to have this huge garden and feed the whole town. It’s a couple of acres now — our back yard and a fenced-in area in the field behind us. But nobody was interested. Most people have some kind of garden, and it seems like the rest are happy to buy the days-old produce trucked in to the little market in town, which always seemed like the castoff stuff they didn’t want at the big markets in Fargo or the Twin Cities. You’d think people would want something better, but a lot of them are almost hostile about it. It’s been a few years now and I’ve had time to wonder why. And all I can think is that they see all this trouble we go to to grow this food as somehow a criticism of the food they’ve always bought and eaten. It’s like they can’t even see it for what it is except as a comment on how they live. As if we had time to walk around through town and criticize everyone. People would be the ones criticizing us, all covered in dirt all the time. Sometimes this time of year I’m amazed we get the dirt washed off before we head for school.

141 / 365 – Silk

FINN TILLARY

She wears silk underwear. She said it keeps her warmer. “Silk is a really insulating fabric,” she told me once, one time when we were lying against each other on her couch and her shirt was unbuttoned and opened just slightly enough that I could get a glimpse, deep red silk with an intricate design crowning the top. I was running my eyes along that design, which for just that moment suggested that if I could just figure out the language in the pattern, I could understand why that narrow little window into the hidden world beneath her shirt seemed to contain the whole mystery of living. She said, “I need the insulation. I didn’t grow up with this cold. I need all the warmth I can get.” It was very matter-of-fact, as if a silk bra promising to unlock the secret of the universe were a matter-of-fact thing.

The fabric is sleek and light and I still can’t quite believe it insulates. I parted her shirt a little, like pulling back a curtain. The pattern was a lace thing on the top of the cups, which were of an even deeper red, suspended there while her breath made her chest rise and fall. I guess I understand now why someone would buy a fancy bra like that, even if it wasn’t just for insulation. I had never seen such a beautiful thing.

Working around her for so long, I knew she wore some kind of exotic bra. I might see a flash of a deep red strap when she was carrying boxes of food in from the car to put them in the fridge, or a dark shadow beneath her light t-shirt, late on a warm day when it had gotten pretty hot inside the cafe and we were cleaning up and wet with sweat. And I guess I noticed it because I had never seen underwear that color before. Nobody I knew had dressed up that way. I don’t know what other people think about if they’ve noticed that, when she’s wiping the counter at the cafe or whatever. I imagine there were some opinions. She told me once that when she and Erik first came to Jericho a rumor started going around about how they had had to leave Boston because she had lived some kind of high-flying life and had been morally compromised or something. She said someone had asked Erik if she had been a stripper. God, if there was a woman who could never in a million years be a stripper. She told me her first thought was that it was antisemitic. Then she realized people didn’t even have enough experience with Jews to recognize one. Probably they had never thought about, except maybe the people who like to pass around conspiracy theories. I said, “Maybe they just didn’t know what to make of your fancy underwear, which you can see every once in awhile. Maybe people think that’s just the stuff that a stripper would wear and they don’t know what else it could be.” I don’t know if she’s convinced, though. Just as I’m still not sure I’m convinced about the insulation.

140 / 365 – Dirt

MIKE ENGELS

Last of the seeds and vegetables are in the ground. I can tell I’m getting older. I feel this in my knees more than I used to. And my fingers. You see those old farmers, the guys that are in their eighties now, the ones who farmed with simpler machines or the ones who grew up using horses, and their hands are often all twisted and knotted up from arthritis and they have a hard time doing simple things with them. I get it. I can feel it coming eventually.

It’s been a dry spring. A lot of people are glad of that, after the wet spring we had last year. Some farms barely got anything in the ground because the ground never dried out enough. It was going to rot seeds. I’ve heard people in the cafe say, “Well, at least this year it’s dry.” But dry makes them worry, too. Every body has a guess of how the season will go. Will we have enough rain or not. As if any of us had any idea. The old guys, they read signs — what the birds are doing, the direction of the wind. One guy told me he gets an idea from what kind of wildflowers he has in his pasture. I said, “Doesn’t that just tell you how much rain you just had? As opposed to what’s coming?” But he insisted it did. Some people have been stretched pretty bad by the weather last year, and how bad the prices have been. So they’re really hoping this is a good year. They need it. My dad always said there were some farmers who were confident no matter how bleak the weather looked, and others worried no matter how good it looked. I’m hearing more of the worried ones the last few days.

You wish some of these guys got closer to their dirt. Being down on my knees the last few weeks, every night until dart, turning the dirt in the yard over fresh. It looks crusted on the top, dried-out with the tramped and dried leavings of last season’s grass. But you get a spade into it and turn it and it’s something else. We have great soil right around town here, rich black loam. Lots of worms and lives stuff in it. You can smell it, that sweet and sour smell of living stuff. We’ve turned a lot of compost into it over the past eight or nine years. Our neighbors hate the compost pile — it does smell pretty bad. But when you turn this earth and feel how alive it is you forget. The whole ground is alive under us, alive and moist and rich. It will keep us this year, as it always has.

For me, no matter how worried I am about the season when we start, by the time we’re done planting I feel sure about everything in the world. Usually in April I’m worrying about late frosts. Now I just feel full. I feel God’s generosity as I scoop the seedlings into the soft earth. You feel Grace, someone said at church, correcting me. That too, I guess. I feel like I’m in my place, my very safe place.

Guys with big farms should plant big gardens and spend some of their time in them. Nowadays you sit in the cab of one of those things, looking at the computer that tells you what to do. You’re not watching the field, except for which way to steer. You’re not really looking at the ground rolling by way beneath your big wheels. The machine does that for you. I don’t know what kind of numbers and readings those things give you, but I don’t think they can give you that rich smell that tells you that life is persisting, as it always has. Persisting and flourishing. And leaving its marks on your hands, your boots, your clothing. On you. As it does.

139 / 140 – Stones

JODI NILSSON

Lars was here with some documents to sign. It seems like he’s here every week with different things. I said, “Why is this taking so long? Why do I have to keep signing all these papers?” He said it’s the only way to keep it out of court. He says if we go to court, we’ll lose more of the farm. I don’t know what he’s talking about. We’re not losing anything, not our half of what’s left.

Sometimes I think he keeps dragging this out, just to test me. He asked me about Laura. He went to New York and got her things, the few that are left. He said the police know nothing. He said he doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t want to give up hope, but he can’t imagine she would just disappear like that. I didn’t say anything. I thought, whether her body is breathing or not, she has not been alive for a long time. “Do you ever pray for her?” I thought, Pray for her? I’ve been praying for her every day since she finally admitted … finally admitted how low she had let herself sink. What she had let herself become. Yeah, I told him that.

She is part of our regular circle of prayer. Lars, he has no idea how people have been trying to care for her. We’ve prayed for her for years.

Brother Porter asked me what we should do. Now that we have finished restoring the church building, and the old parsonage house for him, we’ve been landscaping and cleaning up the cemetery behind the church. Unbelievable what state that had fallen in. We pulled the weeds around the stones, but back bushes that had sprung up. There are lots of familiar last-names on the headstones. You’d think people would have been taking a little bit better care. If you ask me, maybe it’s a problem with our culture now, our disposable culture. People die and then we throw ‘em away in the ground and move on. I don’t know why else a cemetery would look so abandoned as that if people were coming regularly. Most of the other cemeteries around here, people clean them up at least once a year.

Our cemetery is starting to look nice and neat again. After Wednesday meeting a few weeks ago, Brother Porter was standing around afterward, hemming and hawing, while we had some coffee. I finally had to ask. Something seemed to be bothering him.

“Well,” he said, “I wanted to know about your plans.” I laughed. I shouldn’t do that, but I guess I have some bitterness. I said, “What plans? My husband is divorcing me, my daughter betrayed me, and my son and I are trying to keep our old family farm. What plans would I have?” He wanted to know if I planned to be buried in the cemetery. He had cleaned out a nice area from the woods behind it — well, where there was a row of bushes in front of the woods. He was trying to decide what should be done with it, whether he should enclose that and make it part of the cemetery, or whether that wouldn’t be needed. And might Lars want a plot there, too? I almost laughed at that. “I have no idea what Lars wants. But if you ask him, he’ll probably shove some papers in your face and make you sign them.” I said, “When people’s lives are all topsy turvy and upside down, when everything is different from one day to the next because they’re going through a divorce or maybe they’ve lost their job, you don’t talk to them about headstones. You don’t want me thinking about how this divorce could kill me. You want me thinking about going on living, on faith.” He turned pink and I could see that he was embarrassed. I tried to think of something to say so he wouldn’t feel so embarrassed.

So then I said maybe there would be a stone for Laura. Lars won’t do it. I brought it up when he was here with the papers and he coiled up like a snake, all angry. “HOW COULD YOU DO THAT? SHE’S NOT DEAD. YOU JUST WANT HER TO BE DEAD.” And I said, I don’t know that she’s dead, but I don’t feel her alive. Mothers, you feel your children alive, even when they’re not with you, not near you. And I haven’t felt like she was alive in a long time.

138 / 365 – Weeds

KAREN OPPDAHL

Planting took weeks. And if we’d had a good spring, as soon as it was done, you had to be weeding, weeding every acre. A few years, like last year, it was so wet, you had to worry about the seeds rotting in the ground. Carl worried about that. He would tell you he didn’t, but you’d see him, before he drove out to where the tractors were that day, he’d walk the furrows in the field nearest the house, which is usually where we started, since it was higher ground and dried out first.

But then it was weeds. You have to get them early so they don’t shade the grain shoots and crowd them out. We went through this every year, every year for almost fifty years. Each season a new worry, as if we had never done this before. Maybe that’s why we always did so well, because Carl never went into a season thinking he knew everything about how things should be done. That’s why we were able to grow the farm so much over those years. We did well, didn’t spend too much, and planted more.

Of course that made the work unmanageable if you didn’t get bigger machines. I said one year, “What’s wrong with that tractor.” It was the first thing we bought, before we even had a decent house. He needed a bigger tractor than his father had had. It was the war and we needed as much grain as we could grow. It was our second or third year and Carl was able to buy another section from the bank, a section that someone had had to leave during the drought. So we had to have a new tractor. That one lasted a long time, but then I remember, oh, twenty years ago maybe, we needed a bigger one. Then we needed bigger ones more often. At planting time, at harvest, they’d be out from before dawn until after dark. Now my son he says they have computers on tractors and combines, so you could practically drive them without seeing.

But there was no machine for weeds. That was manual work. My mother told me when she was little everyone in the family had to hoe the fields. She said that’s why they kept having kids. She was third out of eleven. Boys and girls, they needed them in the fields. She said it was right as school got out, and kids from town might be dreaming of summer days and playing at the lake but she and the other children from farms out our way knew they were just going from math and writing to working the long rows with their hoes.

We didn’t have such a large family, just three boys and our daughter Kristin. And we had more land than my grandfather had had. We had to hire migrants. Men passed through in those days, looking for work, come through in the summer and swing back through in the fall. Some of them were from Mexico, like you hear about. Most of them weren’t. Just men, young men from Chicago, maybe, or the Twin Cities. The big cities in the midwest. Some of them were just out of the army. Most of them you probably didn’t want to hear their stories, from the way they talked. I didn’t like having them near the house, near the children. We had a bunkhouse out on the next section, way away from here. An old thing made out of concrete blocks, with a metal roof. I think it had been a shed before Carl fixed it up and built bunks in there out of some old lumber. It wouldn’t keep you warm in winter, but nobody was there then. I’d have to clean it out, once or twice during the early summer, and at the end of the season. It was always a mess. I don’t know how people could have lived in there. You really don’t want to know the details. Just terrible, though. I had to get Kristin to help me, and the boys when they were younger. It was such a mess in there, with garbage and bottles and just, filth. They were afraid of it.

The last ten or twenty years, we switched to chemicals. We just had too much land, it would have taken too many people, and Carl thought he was getting too old to manage them. I know there are people who are concerned about chemicals. They say they aren’t good for the land, the environment. They’ve really improved them since that DDT they outlawed. I’ve heard people back in cities put more chemicals on their lawn than we have to put on our grains to keep the weeds down. And golf courses, they say those are the worst. The chemicals are expensive. I think the chemical companies make more money now from farming than we did, than my sons do. But people really couldn’t farm with out them now. It’s too much land and really you couldn’t manage all those people. This time of year, nobody would be able to sleep.